Outback Queensland, the vast area west of the state’s heavily touristed coast, is sparsely populated by tenacious farming communities swinging precariously between famine and survival, and a dramatic change from Queensland’s lush, wet tropics. The population is concentrated in the relatively fertile highlands along the Great Dividing Range, which run low behind the coast; on the far side, expansive, empty plains slide over a hot horizon into the fringes of South Australia and the Northern Territory. The only places attracting Australian or international visitors in any numbers are Longreach, with its mega-museum the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and the Central Highlands oasis of Carnarvon Gorge. But opportunities for exploration are immense, with precious stones, fossils, waterholes and Aboriginal art in abundance. The region has also produced two of Australia’s best-known icons: Banjo Paterson first performed Waltzing Matilda in a Winton hotel, and the same town was the birthplace of Qantas airlines before its launch at nearby Longreach.
Choosing where to go is usually determined by the most convenient starting point. Main roads and trains head west from the coast at Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville and Cairns; buses from Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville cross Outback Queensland as they head interstate, but otherwise public transport is poor. If you’re driving, your vehicle must be well maintained and you should carry essential spares, as even main centres often lack replacement parts. A number of sealed roads are single-vehicle width – pull over to let traffic pass or overtake, and pull off completely to give way to road trains.
Western summers frequently hamper or prohibit travel, as searing temperatures and violent flash floods regularly isolate areas (especially in the Channel Country on the far side of the Great Dividing Range) for days or weeks on end. Even settlements on higher ground see little mercy from the rage of tropical storms; heavy rain in January 2011 lashed southeast Queensland, the floodwaters sweeping destructively through the city of Toowoomba and down into the Lockyer Valley on its way to Brisbane, resulting in devastation of property and a significant loss of life.
As a result of these tropical deluges, many tour companies, visitor centres and motels close completely between November and March, or at least during January and February. But it’s not all bad news; this water (that’s scarce at other times of the year) revives dormant seeds and fast-growing desert flowers. During winter, expect hot days and cool, star-filled nights.Read More
The Burke and Wills saga
The Burke and Wills saga
In 1860 the government of Victoria, then Australia’s richest state, decided to sponsor a lavish expedition to make the first south-to-north crossing of the continent to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Eighteen men, twenty camels (shipped, along with their handlers, from Asia) and over twenty tonnes of provisions started out from Melbourne in August, led by Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. It didn’t take long for the leaders’ personalities to cause problems, and by December, Burke had impatiently left the bulk of the expedition and supplies lagging behind and raced ahead with a handful of men to establish a base camp on Cooper Creek. Having built a stockade, Burke and Wills started north, along with two other members of their team (Gray and King), six camels, a couple of horses and food for three months. Four men remained at camp, led by William Brahe, waiting for the rest of the expedition to catch up. In fact, most of the supplies and camels were dithering halfway between Melbourne and Cooper Creek, unsure of what to do next.
As Burke and Wills failed to keep a regular diary, few details of the “rush to the Gulf” are known. They were seen by Kalkadoon Aborigines following the Corella River into the Gulf, where they found that vast salt marshes lay between them and the sea. Disappointed, they left the banks of the Bynoe (near present-day Normanton) on February 11, 1861, and headed back south. Their progress slowed by the wet season, they killed and ate the camels and horses as their food ran out. Gray died after being beaten by Burke for stealing flour; remorse was heightened when they staggered into the Cooper Creek stockade on April 21 to find that, having already waited an extra month for them to return, Brahe had decamped that morning. Too weak to follow him, they found supplies buried under a tree marked “Dig”, but failed to change the sign when they moved on, which meant that when the first rescue teams arrived on the scene, they assumed the explorers had never returned from the Gulf. Trying to walk south, the three reached the Innamincka area, where Aborigines fed them fish and nardoo (water fern) seeds, but by the time a rescue party tracked them down in September, only King was still alive. The full, sad tale of their trek is expertly told by Alan Moorehead in his classic account Cooper’s Creek, which is well worth tracking down.
Gems were first discovered in 1870 near Anakie, but until Thai buyers came onto the scene a century later operations were low-key; even today there are still solo fossickers making a living from their claims. Formed by prehistoric volcanic actions and later dispersed along waterways and covered by sediment, the zircons, rubies and especially sapphires found here lie in a layer of gravel above the clay base of ancient river beds. This layer can be up to 15m down, so gullies and dry rivers, where nature has already done some of the excavation for you, are good places to start digging.
Looking for surface gems, or specking, is best after rain, when a trained eye can see the stones sparkle in the mud. It’s erratic but certainly easier than the alternative – fossicking – which requires a pick, shovel, sieve, washtub full of water and a canvas sack before even starting (this gear can be rented at all of the fields). Cut and polished, local zircons are pale yellow, sapphires pale green or yellow to deep blue, and rubies are light pink, but when they’re covered in mud it’s hard to tell them from gravel, which is where the washing comes in: the wet gems glitter like fragments of coloured glass.
You have to be extremely enthusiastic to spend a summer on the fields, as the mercury soars, topsoil erodes and everything becomes coated in dust. The first rains bring floods as the sunbaked ground sheds water, and if you’re here at this time you’ll be treated to the sight of locals specking in the rain, dressed in Akubra hats and long Drizabone raincoats and shuffling around like mobile mushrooms. Conditions are best (and hence the fields busiest) as soon after the wet season as possible (around May), when the ground is soft and fresh pickings have been uncovered.
If this all seems like too much hard work, try a gem park, where they’ve done the digging for you and supply a bucket of wash along with all the necessary gear. All you have to do is sieve the wash, flip it onto the canvas and check it for stones. There’s an art to sieving and flipping, but visitors frequently find stones. Gem parks can also value and cut stones for you. Another break from the business end of a pick is to take a mine tour and see if the professionals fare any better. In some ways they do – the chilled air 5m down is wonderful – but the main difference is one of scale rather than method or intent.
If you’re still keen you’ll need a fossicker’s licence, available from shops and gem parks, which allows digging in areas set aside for the purpose or on no-man’s-land. The $6.50 licence is valid for one month and gives you the right only to keep what you find and to camp at fossicking grounds. To “stake a claim” – which gives you temporary ownership of the land to keep others away – you need a Miner’s Right from the field officer in Emerald. This also carries obligations to restore the land to its original state and maintain it for two years after quitting the site.
Xstrata Mines complex
Xstrata Mines complex
The Xstrata Mines complex is a land of trundling yellow mine-trucks, mountains of slag, intense activity and kilometres of noisy vibrating pipelines. Copper, silver, lead and zinc deposits are mined almost 2km down by a workforce of 1200; the rock is roughly crushed and hoisted to the surface before undergoing a second crushing, grinding and washing in flotation tanks, to separate ore from waste. Zinc is sold as it is, copper is smelted into ingots and transported to Townsville for refining, while four-tonne ingots of lead and silver mix are sent to England to be separated. Power for the mines comes from Xtrata’s own plant, with any surplus sold to the state grid.